Before the moratorium went into effect, the ability of lawmakers to earmark tax dollars to specific programs and geographic locations was one of their most cherished political prerogatives. Since 2007, senators have required themselves to certify that neither they nor their “immediate” family members have any financial interests in the programs benefiting from their official actions. Under House rules, however, lawmakers are required to certify only that neither they nor their spouses hold a financial stake in their earmarks, not other members of their immediate families.
Congressional files are replete with copies of these self-certifications. Most of them contain identical language, and few disclose that lawmakers have relatives who are employed by the organizations about to benefit from their benevolence. Officials at Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonprofit group that monitors congressional spending, said they could not recall the last time a lawmaker was disciplined for using an earmark to benefit his or her relatives.
‘An experienced educator’
For years, Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) has supported a Pentagon program called Starbase that teaches science, math and engineering skills to children in dozens of locations around the country.
Johnson is a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which has jurisdiction over the Pentagon’s budget. In 2008, Johnson, along with seven other senators, added $4 million to the Starbase budget.
At the time, Johnson’s wife, Barbara, was paid an annual salary of $80,000 as a contract employee to evaluate the program. From 2005 to September, she worked for the Spectrum Group, a lobbying and consulting firm in Alexandria, that has a $1 million Pentagon contract to monitor Starbase. A social worker and educator, Barbara Johnson was also assigned to manage its Web site.
Spectrum President Gregory L. Sharp said he hired the senator’s wife because of her history of working with children.
“She was looking for a job,” Sharp said. “We didn’t hire her because of her husband. We didn’t hire her for that reason. She was an experienced educator.”
Barbara Johnson said in an interview she took the job around the time her husband started having health problems. He later had a brain hemorrhage in December 2006.
Shortly after hiring the senator’s wife, Spectrum filed a lobbying registration form with the House and Senate naming Barbara Johnson as a lobbyist for the company. The form listed Starbase as her only client.